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Most people only think of eastern seaboard cities such as Beijing and Shanghai when they think of China. But if you’ve been following my Instagram the past couple of months, you know that there’s much more to the Middle Kingdom. One of my favorite parts of my two-month stay in China this fall was a road trip through northwestern China. Here are 5 reasons why you should visit northwestern China, with practical logistical info to follow.
Reason #1: Amazing geographical wonders
Where else can you find salt lakes, deserts, and rainbow mountains all around the same area?
Reason #2: A taste of Tibet and Mongolia
Northwestern China is filled with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Tibetan-Mongolian autonomous prefectures. That means you’ll get plenty of Tibetan and Mongolian influences, from architecture to food.
Reason #3: Incredible food
In addition to the Tibetan and Mongolian food you’ll have in northwestern China as you travel through Tibetan and Mongolian autonomous areas, there’s also an immense amount of halal food courtesy of the large Muslim populations in the area.
Reason #4: Silk Road history
The famous Silk Road (really a network) ran through northwestern China. Learn and experience Silk Road history at various sites.
Reason #5: Religious diversity
From one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to unique mosques, northwestern China will surprise you with its religious fervor of various flavors.
How to Visit Northwestern China
So now that I’ve hopefully piqued your interest, here’s some important logistical information to know for when you visit northwestern China.
1) Assuming you start in Beijing or Shanghai as most people traveling to China do, the easiest gateway to northwestern China is Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province.
You can reach Lanzhou with a quick 2.5 or 3.5-hour flight from Beijing or Shanghai, respectively, or you can experience China’s new high-speed rail with a full-day train ride. Urumqi is the other option — that’s generally better if you’re coming overland from central Asia.
2) Once you’ve arrived, you have four main options for transport between cities: trains, car rental, car hire with a driver, or with a tour.
Trains will be the cheapest to start with but can end up being expensive as you’ll likely need to hail taxis in order to get around. This is especially true as many of northwestern China’s highlights are outside of city centers.
The adventurous and experienced driver may want to rent a car, but know that the international driving permit isn’t valid in China. Instead, you’ll need to get a 90-day temporary license first.
Hiring a car with a driver is probably a more convenient option. Just make sure to do research ahead of time to find an English-speaking driver at a good rate.
Last but not least, you can also book a tour if you don’t speak Chinese and want to avoid spending too much time trying to navigate through northwestern China.
3) CTrip, or Trip.com per its recent acquisition and rebrand, is going to be your best friend if you’re traveling in China independently. The English app allows you to search for and book trains, flights, and hotels with ease, all for a small processing fee.
Booking.com is also great if you’d rather book ahead of time and have more English reviews to consider.
4) Make sure you have a good VPN so you can access information about sites and routes, or if you just want to be able to post photos of your favorite northwestern China destinations to Instagram. ExpressVPN is my go-to as it has the strongest success rate in China. (Get 30 days free here.)
5) The number of English speakers significantly decrease in the northwest, so if you don’t speak Chinese, be prepared with phrase books, Google Translate, and Maps.Me to help get you around.
Where to Go in Northwestern China
You could spend months traveling through northwestern China if you wanted to see everything, but unless you’re one of the lucky few, you probably don’t have that much time or money to do so.
We spent 6 days in northwestern China for our trip, following more or less what is known in China as the “Northwest Small Loop.” Here’s our rough itinerary to get you started.
Day 1: High-speed train from Beijing to Lanzhou
Day 2: Drive from Lanzhou to Xining to visit the Kumbum Monastery (or, Ta’er Si) and then Qinghai Lake.
Day 3: Sunrise at Black Horse River, then off to Chaka Salt Lake and Keluke Lake.
Day 4: A lot of driving to get from Qinghai province to Gansu province, broken up with detours to more salt lakes, land formations (Demon City), and the occasional roadblock.
Upon arriving in Dunhuang in Gansu province, we went to an “evening in the desert” activity with our hostel, which included ATV’ing and sand sledding on the Mingsha Mountain dunes.
Day 5: Sunrise visit to Mingsha Mountain and Crescent Oasis, possibly my favorite spot in northwestern China, followed by a scheduled tour of the famous Mogao Caves of Dunhuang (read more on securing your tickets). We continue driving to reach ZhangYe by nightfall.
Day 6: Time for ZhangYe Danxia GeoPark, the Rainbow Mountains of China, followed by more driving.
Day 7: Arrive back in Lanzhou and try to pack as much as possible into one day in the city.
Day 8: Fly back to the eastern seaboard
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Northwestern China?
How much your trip will cost will obviously depend on your transportation and lodging choices, among other things.
Here’s a rough breakdown of how much our road trip cost per person. An important caveat: we traveled during China’s Golden Week, one of the busiest travel periods of the year, so prices for transportation and lodging are much higher than usual.
- High-speed train from Beijing to Lanzhou: ¥690 pp
- Car rental and gas for 6 days: ¥5523 total for a 7-seater van
- Flight from Lanzhou to Tianjin: ¥1020 pp
- 6 nights in hostels and 1 night in a hotel: ¥696 pp
- Mostly family-style meals for 8 days: ¥345 pp
- Tickets for all places and activities: ¥848 pp
Total cost: ¥4388 pp, or roughly $665 USD
Next time, I’d like to continue exploring northwestern China with a trip to the frontier province of Xinjiang. Where would you like to visit in northwestern China?
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